Shaemarie Skaggs

Revival

By James K. Galloway

Shaemarie Skaggs

Tennessee artist Shaemarie Skaggs, cancer survivor, bites the filter off a Marlboro cigarette during a photo shoot at an industrial park in Clarksville.

Hoses dropped from a chemotherapy bag stretch around a rosary and into the blood-soaked needle-fed arm of Shaemarie Skaggs, whose hand clutches the withering flower of life.

It is just after sunset when I pull into the front yard of the budding Clarksville artist’s home. Clarksville, Tennessee is the worst town I’ve ever been to. The chance to interview an artist is a relief from the brown solitude that comes with living in a dry, burned-out military town. I wonder how creativity can flourish in a place like this. How can she?

As instructed, I call to inform Shaemarie that I have arrived and I approach her front door. It’s a beautiful McMansion nestled within a sloping subdivision. If I hadn’t seen the other homes driving in, I’d be inclined to believe it’s a real original piece of modern architecture. It is the same as the others if not slightly different. It is a floor plan. From up high, I can see the lights from Wal-Mart, Kroger and whatever else every town keeps along Commercial Avenue.

She says we can’t do the interview here – this is where she lives and takes care of her mother who recently suffered a stroke.

We drive around the neighborhood as I look for an exit out of Skaggs’ labyrinthine subdivision. Right away, she unfolds a picture of her arm with a rosary and chemotherapy supplies, and jumps right into explaining it to me.

“The bitch nurse fuckin' put a needle in my hand for painkillers – for morphine,” Shaemarie says, “And she didn't put it in my vein, so the morphine soaked in my hand and it would sting every time it pumped through. So I didn't have painkillers or I didn't feel right at all, and it hurt like a bitch.”

Pointing to her artwork, Skaggs tells the story as she’s told it countless times before. She says flatly during her chemotherapy treatments, this picture hung on her wall as an expression of her own humanity – but that she took joy from others’ reactions to it.

“The doctors would come in and freak out, and I thought it was really funny when they’d freak out and shit,” she says. “I like how I wrapped it around the cross because I just hate religion.”

Skaggs was diagnosed December 2009 with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer originating from white blood cells. Shortly thereafter she drew a relatively simplistic self-portrait featuring peeled-back skin and decay of a long-haired vixen – a living corpse aware of her own mortality.

Shaemarie Skaggs

The lips, rotted away into a grimace of a smile, represent Skaggs' morbid imagination of herself as chemotherapy took hold.

“It was really bothersome, but that was the point,” she says, looking out the window of my truck as we sit at a stop light. Then came a long silence.

We are headed toward a spot with free wi-fi where Shaemarie says we’ll access more of her artwork. She changes the subject to me and my work. I oblige but keep it ground-level, explaining that I’m a writer and editor. While booming down Clarksville’s main drag to the finer cuts of Led Zeppelin II, the sexy young artist asks more specifically what else I do besides interviewing her.

I explain how I write politics and local government articles for the newspaper, which gets her onto the subject of President Barack Obama and the superficial similarities between his efforts and those of Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR’s New Deal may have gotten us out of the Great Depression, but Skaggs believes Obama is an actor.

He’s trying to make it look good and doing this whole cover on it, like, ‘Oh, everything’s going to be fine,’ but really it’s starting to suck. It’s a fake aspect that he’s making everything look good but it’s not.

-Skaggs, on President Barack Obama

“He’s trying to make it look good and doing this whole cover on it, like, ‘Oh, everything’s going to be fine,’ but really it’s starting to suck. It’s a fake aspect that he’s making everything look good but it’s not.”

She says her grandfather was a lawyer for a Philippine president while his daughter spied against him, causing controversy within her family and within the nation. She says her pursuit of liberal arts made her a black sheep when everyone else went into politics or has an “amazing job” as educators and government employees.

“It’s because we [Skaggs and her sister] are liberal and – ‘Fuck the government’,” says Skaggs, “And because we grew up in a stern family and we’re just like anti-everything.”

By now, we’ve reached our Internet source where Shaemarie discovers she can find specific Tumblr compositions through a simple Google search. She exclaims, “Google is a fucking creeper!”

Skaggs is exceptionally proud of one of her pieces of writing, which was reblogged by a website called The Whiskey Monologues and subsequently reviewed by its followers. The piece is about a drunken night of indiscriminate sex with an unnamed lover, notable for its sensual, emotive language and highly-revealing self-analysis midway through the exposé on passion itself.

Shaemarie Skaggs enjoys a cigarette

While shooting at an abandoned industrial site, Skaggs informs me that she is in remission and healthy, in spite of a nasty cough acquired as a result of her smoking habit.

Shaemarie is forever affected by cancer, emotionally if not physically. Skaggs’ friend, Cara Roman, who she called “a fiesty little thing,” died July 2010 after a four-year battle with leukemia.

“She was my friend before I got cancer, I used to visit her all the time. And then one day I showed up to her hospital room and told her I have cancer. We both cried. I was the only one who spoke at her funeral. She was the closest person I had. She was so alive.”

Shaemarie says she will seek a liberal arts degree from Austin Peay State University but for the time being cares for her ailing mother at their shared home in suburban Clarksville.

Like a flash in a pan, the blinking of an eye, a star’s lifespan and all the time in the sky – Shaemarie Skaggs taught me that expression is only as beautiful as the time we have to appreciate it. That memories last as long as we can remember them, lest we mark them down.

On a long enough timeline, all things are finite, no matter what efforts we as human beings make to archive, categorize and chisel them into stone. On a short-enough timeline, all things last forever.

So do we.

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